Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s request to publicly dissociate himself from Michael Oren’s harsh attacks on Barack Obama. Netanyahu reportedly said that that Oren wrote his book ALLY in a private capacity and was not a member of his Likud party. The real reason for the prime minister’s demurral, however, is probably much more straightforward: He concurs with Oren’s diagnosis of Obama’s inherent malevolence towards Israel.
There are many Israelis, of course, who agree with the prime minister’s blistering criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. They ascribe what they view as Obama’s dangerous concessions to Tehran to his wish to retreat from the Middle East, or to forge a new strategic alliance with Tehran, or to create a counterbalance to Islamic State, or to what they describe as his weakness or naiveté; or to all of the above.
Most of them, however, do not subscribe to the view that is so widely prevalent in right wing/Republican circles of American Jewry that Obama harbors an overarching animosity towards Israel, that he basically has it in for the Jewish state: In their eyes, Obama’s extraordinary record of diplomatic and security assistance renders that notion ridiculous. Nor do they believe, as Oren asserts, that Obama should bear most if not all of the blame for the breakdown of trust between the two leaders: Anyone who has read newspapers during the last six years knows that such a theory beggars belief.
Nonetheless, as many of his interlocutors will confirm, this is Netanyahu’s core conviction. Obama isn’t pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran or advancing a two-state solution with the Palestinians simply because he believes that these are American interests: He is doing so in order to intentionally and willfully harm Israel. Whether it’s his compensation for Muslim father-figures who abandoned him, as Oren wrote, or his identification with Third World liberation movements, or his association with Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khalidi and his coterie of Jewish leftists in Chicago - or any combination thereof– Netanyahu is convinced that Obama’s intentions are far from benign. And when he has moments of doubt, rest assured that his American supporters and benefactors quickly lay them to rest.
Oren, at least, seems to believe that exposing Obama’s sinister designs can help the Israeli campaign against the Iran deal: He has said that he pressured Random House to bring up the publication date to June, rather than September-October. It would not be a stretch to believe that he coordinated his timing with Netanyahu, but the only proof so far for such collaboration is circumstantial: It will probably backfire, like most of Netanyahu’s ploys. So far, Oren’s reputation seems to have sustained heavier damage than Obama’s.
For Netanyahu, however, the talk of Obama’s ingrained malice serves a much more fundamental purpose: It can help to explain his own failures, to himself as well as to others. After all, Netanyahu has repeatedly described his campaign against Iran as the single most important mission in his life: He must now prepare to defend his possible failure to prevent an agreement that he believes is a disaster for Israel, as well as the ensuing rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that he has long railed against.
This is the same Netanyahu who has long prided himself on his intimate knowledge of America and his great sway over its public. How can he justify the fact that he has had such little impact on the formulation of American policy under Obama? How can he refute accusations that his refusal to show flexibility on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy left him with no bargaining chips to play? How can he negate the claim that his support for Obama’s Republican rivals undercut his ability to influence the White House on what he describes as Israel’s greatest existential challenge? Indeed, how can Michael Oren exonerate himself of responsibility for the role he played in this fundamental fiasco?
There is only one sure escape route from the dead end: It’s called scapegoating. “A person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency,” as the Oxford Dictionary writes. “Scapegoating serves as an opportunity to explain failure or misdeeds, while maintaining one's positive self-image,” as the Psychology Dictionary observes.
Obama’s pre-programmed evil designs are Netanyahu’s scapegoat. If Obama’s wish to ingratiate himself with Muslims at Israel’s expense is ingrained and immutable, then Netanyahu’s tactics over the past six years cannot be faulted. Even if he would have compromised on the Palestinians and turned his back on Republicans, the results would have been exactly the same. His relations with the White House would be shot, and his standing among Obama-led Democrats would be shattered. He did what he could, but his efforts were doomed from the outset.
A claim can be made, of course, that Obama is just as guilty of scapegoating as Netanyahu. He has repeatedly inflated Netanyahu’s misdeeds and misstatements in order to minimize his own mistakes, downplay Palestinian rejectionism and ignore the Israeli public’s own reluctance to make further concessions for peace. Obama overlooks the general bloody mayhem in the Middle East, which would very likely have produced similar Israeli policies no matter who was prime minister.
But there is a difference between simply trying to deflect blame and scapegoating: the success of the latter is usually reliant on the existence of prior prejudice. Interestingly, Oren makes just such a connection when he asserts that “pathological” criticism of Netanyahu, especially by American Jewish journalists, “resembled that traditionally triggered by the Jews.”
This claim, especially when it is ascribed to Jewish writers and journalists, is one of Oren’s more preposterous, but it does bring to mind another psychological phenomenon called projection: “a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against unpleasant impulses by denying their existence in themselves, while attributing them to others.”
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